Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Autumn approaches

Now, after mid-August, our Arctic goslings are growing up and will be capable of flight in the next few weeks. Whilst I haven't heard yet, it would be no great surprise if there were already some adult Brent at Strangford. Typically the first arrivals are some dozens of birds in mid-August on the northern mudflats. It is likely that these birds by-pass Iceland entirely and therefore cross the Greenland ice-cap and fly directly to Ireland. I speculate this is the case as it doesn't make sense for them to stop (at all) or for any length of time in Iceland and then head to Ireland. I suspect it's one or other. 

As the expedition team had reported already, the setting sun and no doubt chillier and snowy conditions in the Canadian Arctic will be giving the geese the cue that it is time to head to warmer climes. A month from now we'd expect thousands already in Ireland and more like tens of thousands in western Iceland. It it logical that the vanguard are the mobile failed or non-breeding adults - why hang around in Canada any longer than necessary? Equally logical is that the later migrants will be the young and their parents as they may have moulted later and certainly the young have to grow their flight feathers before they are able to take to the air. 

We'll try to keep you up to date with the autumn arrivals as information comes in.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Return to Resolute Bay


4th August
After a failed attempt to send a dry shipper (a container infused with liquid nitrogen for holding our blood samples) to the team in Eureka (it spent two weeks in Quebec) and various calls to other shipping agents, we decided the only sure option for getting one up there was to travel with it. So Stu set off on Sunday. No problems all the way to Iqaluit, which was basking in sun, ice-free and 17 degrees C. However, the weather in Resolute Bay had been pretty awful over the last couple of weeks, only two flights got in over a 9-day period.  So as they called our flight it was made clear that there was a less than 50% chance of getting in.
View from my hotel room in Arctic Bay
On landing at Arctic Bay to refuel it became clear that the chance of getting in was even slimmer and after an hour at the airstrip it was cancelled with the promise of a very early flight the following morning. We stayed at the Tangmaarvik Inn, not particularly salubrious, but great views out over the bay, flat calm, total reflection (see pic) and blue fulmars gliding and dipping sending ripples out to meet the iceflows. Dinner at $60 was welcome, but bloody awful. 


Arctic Bay also has some resonance with the project as we have been working with Naomi Hart (an Exeter artist) who last year sent brent goose postcards all over the world for people to post them back to her for an installation on bird migration (see http://www.allaboutmigration.com/). Anyway the link comes from a postcard sent to her by a school boy from this very village (see pic).




5th August

Up at 4am local time, at the airstrip by 5 boarded the plane and arrived in Resolute in time for breakfast. The weather had cleared dramatically and we had the makings of a beautiful day. While I was heading north the team from Eureka was heading south and of course the poor weather meant that they had got stuck too (Ian’s post will fill in the gaps). But they arrived mid-morning and because of the weather window, Tom, Ian and Kerry had just enough time for lunch before we were loading the helicopter to go and look for geese. John Innes (who we have worked with much of the season) was our pilot and we set out just after lunch, heading northwest across Cornwallis Island (yet another place that looks like the surface of Mars) toward McDougall Sound and Tern Island. The weather got clearer as we hit the sea, now petrol blue flecked with white ice. A quick circuit of tern Island revealed lots of king eiders, Arctic terns and many young Sabine’s gulls, but no geese. We then turned northeast heading for the coast of Devon island and a fuel cache. We saw a few small flocks of Brent, on some of the outlying islands but all were flying and so no chance of any catches. After refuelling at Stewart Point on the south east coast of the Grinnell Peninsula, we had yet another spectacular flight, along seabird cliffs and iced in fjords. Lots of moulting eiders and long-tailed ducks, more Sabine’s gulls and an ivory gull, but very few geese and again those we did see were already flying. Nice to see lots of walruses out and the ice (see pic) and some very big groups (50+) packed onto some of the beaches.


We rounded Cape Briggs and headed east into the Belcher Channel. This was an area that Kendrew had seen lots of families in 2005, however it was the same story and eventually we hit a fog bank. John tried very hard to get around it including flying up a narrow riverbed at about 20ft with about 100m visibility. We decided to try the east coast of Bathurst Island instead. The Penny Strait was flat calm and we saw several female narwhal, one of which was sleeping and a polar bear mum and cub (see the two white dots near the top of the pic below) on an iceflow about 10miles from land.
Alas Bathurst was just as disappointing, lots of geese, but none we could catch, apart from 5-10 birds that were probably moulting. We refuelled at Polar Bear pass, which is a low wetland that cuts through central Bathurst from east to west. We checked more of the Bathurst coast to the southeast, but the weather had really closed in and it was now raining. We decided to cut our losses and turned east, back towards Cornwallis Is and Resolute. Crossing McDougal sound we saw a really nice male narwhal and we did see a few more geese along the coast of Cornwallis, but no families. Looks like there may not have been many breeders in this part of the world this year.


6th August

Snow first thing, was not a great sign for us and sure enough when we spoke to Glenn (the logistics controller at Polar Shelf) it was clear that we were not going to get flying. Freezing rain is bad for helicopters. So we had one of those days in Resolute, where we lurched from one large meal to another, with cookies and cakes in between. We did get a car and had a bit of a drive around the one road that runs between the base and the town. The town, like many in the Arctic, is a pretty grim place, lots of rubbish blowing everywhere and septic tanks emptying into the adjacent river. We also visited a 600 year-old Thule (the first Inuit settlers in this part of the world) settlement, must have been a very hard existence up here… cannot imagine why they abandoned. After some protracted negotiations, we have managed to get to fly tomorrow (weather permitting). So we are planning to head up to Devon Island again to Cape Vera and Hell’s Gate. There is a Polynya up there which means open water and hopefully some families. Kerry, Graham and Alyn leave at 5am and so we said our goodbyes before bed. 



7th August

The wind got up overnight and so all plans to fly to Devon are up the spout. After a look at the map we decide that it might be worth heading round Cornwallis (as Glenn does not want us to travel any further). At 10am we get the nod and so we take a big punt on there being geese on some of the river mouths to north and east of the island. East Cornwallis is a desolate place, we fly for over 30 minutes across the centre of the island and do not see a single living thing. Again we do come across some Brent, but all are fliers. The wind is getting stronger and stronger and we head for home as the fuel gauge hits 100lbs (about half an hours flying time). So a lot of flying and travelling by yours truly for very little scientific reward.
However we have had a fantastic season and got more done than I dared hope: found new breeding areas, close to 30 individuals resighted, 24 nests found, 120 adults ringed and sampled, 60 chicks ringed and sampled, diet samples collected from all over and flown several 1000miles of coastline. I am very proud of Tom, Ian and Chantelle in particular for all their hard work and dedication spending the entire summer at 80 degrees north, under arduous, but spectacularly beautiful (well most of the time) conditions. Big big thanks also to Sean and Freydis for the middle stint and warding off polar bears and the same goes to Alyn, Kerry and Graham for the last few weeks. We will do it again…possibly not next year, but 2016 is on the cards….. and of course it will be autumn before we know it so keep watching!!
Late season team at Resolute base. L to R: Chantelle, Stu, Alyn, Tom, Ian, Graham and Kerry


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The search is on - goose and Martian catching on Devon Island

As Stuart mentioned in his last entry the team are using Resolute PCSP base now (the team will I suspect be very glad of the facilites available including hot showers, abundant food and soft chairs!) and will be flying sorties from there to areas within reach (< 1 1/2 hours away) to look for flocks of goslings and moulting adults. In previous trips (2005 and 2007) we have limited catching to sites in W and E Bathurst Island. While we saw other catchable flocks there have been no catch attempts anywhere else in this area since the 1970s (though Western High Arctic Brant which migrate down the western US seaboard have been captured on Melville Island). The area of search will concentrate on the NW corner of Devon Island. This is the largest uninhabited island in the world. The eastern side forms a high plateau with a large (> 5000 sq mile) ice-cap while the western side is hilly and lower - including the Grinnell peninsula where the lads are searching. Devon Island is also famous for the Houghton impact crater (14 mile wide meteorite impact crater) which lies to the east of where the lads are working. Having virtually no vegetation and year-round temperatures below zero, this site is considered to be analogous to the conditions on Mars. Hence the site's 'martian' use for testing equipment and various tests on astronouts by the NASA-funded Mars Society team. Back in 2007 we saw reasonably sized flocks of Brent along fossil-strewn beaches along Devon Island's northern coast. A remarkable place. Looking forward to updates from the team!

Happy Birthday to Ian

Sunday, 3 August 2014

OK...there were some bear visits....


Tom sent a text last night to announce that the last bear watch of the season was over, Schei Camp has closed and so now we can come clean. We had not mentioned this up till now to spare the worry of loved ones back home. On the 17th July a few days into the first camping trip Tom was on bear watch when he spotted a white patch in the distance. It caught his eye as he did not remember seeing it there before and then…he realised it was moving. Hoping it was a wolf at first, he quickly worked out that it was a polar bear (see the pic that Freydis took)!! 








We had seen some signs of bear activity in the area when I was up there in late June, but all the tracks we had seen were pretty old. (I am now recounting the conversation I had with Tom and so there may be some errors of fact here…but as I always say there is no point in letting the truth get in the way of a good story). The bear approached the camp and got to within about 120m or so (possibly closer), it finally moved off after Sean had fired off several bear bangers (see pic of the kit). Luckily this seemed to work and there was no more sign of the bear during that camping session.
However, a week or so later the team had returned to the camp (with Kerry, Alyn and Graham). Tom was on the phone to me giving me the latest news, when he broke off our conversation with the words “guys…….guys….is that a bear or a wolf coming up the ridge?” It was a bear… probably the same animal as had visited them before. Tom hung up quickly and it was over an hour before I heard back from him. On this occasion it did not come as close as it had previously… it wandered down checked them out from a couple 100m.…sat down for a bit and then moved off. They never saw it again.

I am in T2 at Heathrow as I write and will be in Resolute tomorrow evening. We are planning to search the north coast of Devon Island (about 140miles north of Resolute) on Tuesday and Wednesday, so hopefully we will have some more to report before the season finishes next weekend.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Warning: Gosling pics!!

Alyn with a family in the pen
On the 29th we returned to the skies in order to catch more geese. This time our aim was to target families because we have already caught plenty of failed breeders and many of these birds are far enough through the moult that they can fly, but only just.
awwwwwww


I am afraid I can give few details about the first catch as Chantelle and I were waiting back at camp. We tend to limit the catch team to 4 due to helicopter space. I can tell of the pacing tedium of those back at camp, but I can't make it interesting. Anyway, the main thing is that the catch was successful with a haul of 11 adults and 24 precious goslings. That means there's some nice photos of cute goslings now available. We had to process them in a bit of a quagmire but it went smoothly.



Afterwards we went straight back to the helicopter to catch more geese. This demonstrates our dedication; plus the helicopter is warm inside. This time I was on the helicopter so I can describe what happened. First, we pwent to check it a group of 18 or so non breeders we had seen previously. They were still there so we quickly set the net, but the geese simply flew away so we quickly put the net back on the helicopter. We were unsure of our next move but in the next bay we saw a small group of families that looked a good target. After another highly efficient net set John chased them in with relative ease and we had another 5 adults and 7 goslings. In total that's 47 geese for that day.
Tom with a 2-3 week old gosling


We have more helicopter time on the 2nd, but after that we are off to Resolute where there's soft beds, plentiful and varied food, warmth, laundry ,hot showers and pancakes for breakfast. For me in particular it will be a great day when I can escape porridge for breakfast.


Ian

PS the next catch is due on Saturday, I will rejoin the team in Resolute on Monday for the last couple of catch attempts for the summer. More excitement to follow I am sure

Stu

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

First families captured, goslings 10-20 days old. Biscuit-fest

I have lifted this title from Stuart's facebook posting as clearly he's been on the satellite phone and is more in the know than the rest of us..until we get our next update. I'm just doing a wee gap filler as I'm conscious that not everyone reading this knows the "ins and outs" of what the team are up to.

Our limited previous information indicated that peak egg-laying of this Brent population is around mid-June, with peak hatching (the average, obviously it varies nest to nest) around July 12th. The contents of the hatched eggs then move from egg, guarded with parents to join other broods as larger units (safety in numbers) to where they can all eat. The adults will have been having a pretty lean time (obviously birds have been devoting a lot of time to incubation) and the chicks - well the fresh shoots of arctic sedges and grasses are a whole new experience to them! As these family units have to leave the arctic next month the 24 hour daylight affords the opportunity to feed virtually round the clock so they can grow and be able to undertake the flight to Ireland via Greenland and Iceland. A route their parents will know but will be entirely new for the young of course.

The eggs are ca. 100g in weight in early July, and these become ca. 1kg chicks a month later. That's quite something!

Part of the work the team are engaged in involves putting some facts around the type of things I've written - because there is really precious little known about the breeding biology of these birds. So - forget the "fancy" stuff - even the basic information as to which bird incubates, when, for how long, where they are feeding and on what etc is all totally new information.

The 24 hour daylight subtly shifts in mid-August and that (I guess) is one of the cues the birds use to know it is time to be thinking about heading the several thousand miles south-east. Meanwhile, the failed breeders (attempted and failed) and those who, for one reason or another, didn't attempt at all (e.g. too young) will have been loitering focused on surviving and preparing for the journey themselves. Both these non-breeding adults and the adults with young undertake a moult of their flight feathers (like a snake sheds its skin if you like) in late July and early August which is why these birds are flightless and catchable. Hence the round-ups from boats and ability to corral them into nets using people on foot and a capable helicopter pilot. Try such a technique in Iceland or Ireland at any other time of the year and...you guessed it... the birds will simply fly off.

In the final phase of the expedition the team will change their operational base to the Polar Continental Shelf facility at Resolute on Cornwallis Island. This area was established as a sovereign northern outpost by the Canadian and US military some decades ago and, if you have seen any television documentaries about North Pole expeditions the base at Resolute is invariably the penultimate staging post for such expeditions. From here the PCSP staff manage all the scientific teams, their logistical requirements and co-ordinate all flights in and out. This is just north of Lancaster Sound (part of the North West Passage) and just west of Beechy Head where some of Franklin's team are buried. Remember it's not that very long ago (just over a century) that wooden ships and teams of entrepid explorers under largely British, US/Canadian or Danish were seeking trade routes etc.

The Brent team will be in relative luxury (abundant hot water, laboratories, flushing toilets, telephones, pool tables, biscuits and refreshments on tap and will be running catching sorties to adjacent sites where we know or think are likely to hold birds - Bathurst Island and Devon Island. 

That's enough spoofing from me. Look forward to live updates from the field. Meanwhile I will return to the chocolate Hob-Nobs and fresh coffee!